Varavara Rao, The 80-Year-Old Incarcerated Poet-Activist With COVID-19
The news about Rao contracting the virus led to outrage, with many claiming that he was being killed in jail with neglect.
Last Thursday, the newspapers reported about octogenarian poet and activist Varavara Rao contracting COVID-19. Rao has been in Navi Mumbai's Taloja jail since 2018, in connection with the Elgar Parishad event and the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
The report on Rao catching viral infection comes days after his family expressed concern about his health and appealed to the authorities to "not kill him in jail". This prompted outrage from young poets of India to pen down a statement saying , "An attack on Rao is an attack on all of us."
This article explores Rao as a professor of Telugu literature, his long history of questioning authority, and the infamous incident from 2018 that landed him in prison.
Who is Varavara Rao?
Rao was born in a Telugu Brahmin family in Telangana's Warangal district. With a penchant for writing poems since his teenage years, he went on to get a postgraduate degree from Osmania University in Telugu literature.
After a short stint as a publication assistant at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in New Delhi, Rao went on to become a Telugu lecturer and head at Chanda Kanthaiah Memorial College in Hyderabad.
Rao became a prominent critique of Telugu literature and taught the subject to graduate and undergraduate students in a career spanning four decades.
Marxism And Politics
Marxism and left wing politics have had a deep impact on Rao's life and his works. In 1969, he joined Tirugubatu Kavulu (association of rebel poets), and in 1970 he founded Virasam - The Revolutionary Writer's Assocotiation - drawing inspiration from the peasant uprising in Andhra Pradesh's Srikakulam and the Naxalbari movement in Bengal that started three years earlier.
These associations were built upon anti-establishment sentiments, when went on to define a lot of Rao's work and his life, symbolised by years of incarceration.
Rao's works irked the then government of Andhra Pradesh who arrested him in 1973 under the former Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) for spreading violence through his writings. Two years later, at the height of Emergency under the Indira Gandhi-led administration, Rao is arrested under MISA yet again.
Following this, Rao is arrested several times for his alleged involvement in multiple conspiracies. Rao was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Secunderabad conspiracy case, where he was accused of trying to overthrow the Andhra Pradesh government with nearly 50 other people - which ended with an acquittal in 1989.
Shortly after, he was arrested again in the Ramnagar Conspiracy case for attending a meeting to plot the assassination of a police constable and inspector in Andhra Pradesh. This too, ended in an acquittal in 2003.
After years of struggle and negotiations between the radical left groups and the state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Rao was arrested once again in 2005 under the Public Security Act, when he played the role of negotiator between the Andhra Pradesh government under Indian National Congress, and the People's War Group (Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) People's War).
Bhima-Koregaon And Final Incarceration
On January 1, 2018, an annual event took place in Maharashtra's Bhima Koregaon to commemorate the Battle of Koregaon of 1818, which marked the victory of Dalit Mahars over the upper-caste Peshwa regime.
Following objections from Hindtuva right-wing organisations the event turned violent, leading to riot-like situations across the country, culminating in the death of a 16-year-old boy.
Also Read: Bhima Koregaon Clashes: Parts Of Mumbai Paralysed Due To Dalit Protests
Initially, a First Information Report was filed against Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote for instigating violence against Dalits. However, a report in March 2018 by a think tank named Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS) absolved both Ekbote and Bhide from the case and instead put the blame on Maoist groups for instigating Dalits.
Also Read: Who Is Sambhaji Bhide & Why PM Narendra Modi Admires Him
Following this, the authorities started arresting a number of activists with alleged Maoist connections for instigating riots. On August 28, 2018, Rao was placed under house arrest due to his alleged involvement in the case, and was finally taken into custody by Pune police on November 17, 2018.
The authorities insisted that speeches made by Rao and others were the inciting factor of the violence that occurred at Bhima-Koregaon. Reports by the authorities also suggested that the Elgar Parishad event, which was held on December 31, 2017, saw an alleged discussion around a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi - a charge that was based upon a letter which refers to a person identified as 'R'.
Since then, Rao has been incarcerated under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention Act) and repeated efforts to bail him out - mostly on grounds of his health - have been in vain.
On Friday, the National Human Rights Commission of India issued notices to the Chief Secretary and the Director General (Prisons) of Maharashtra and stated that Rao was an under trial prisoner and that his healthcare was the state's responsibility. The commission had also ordered Rao to be moved to a private facility if required.
However, Rao's family members told BOOM that they have not yet been informed of his latest conditions, nor are they aware of him being moved to a private facility.
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